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Purposeful Volunteering

“Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus.” (John 19:38)

A good candidate for the patron saint of volunteers, St. Joseph courageously asked Pontius Pilate for the body of Jesus when it was very dangerous to be identified as one of his followers. “The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the Tree, wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb.” (Troparion of Great and Holy Saturday)

Every parish depends heavily upon volunteers to fulfill its mission. In parishes that are understaffed this is especially true. Such a strong reliance upon volunteers requires that the leadership of a parish perform well in identifying, recruiting, equipping and sustaining volunteers. Rapid turnover, poor performance, ineffectiveness or burnout of volunteers contributes significantly to stress upon the priest and discontent in the parish.

Many of these potential volunteer afflictions can be avoided through an effective recruitment process. It’s always a temptation to openly call for volunteers in the bulletin, newsletter or from the amvon following liturgy. This should only be done when the task is short-term menial work that requires many hands, such as a parish festival. When the task requires a specific long-term commitment to a defined ministry then another approach must be utilized – one that embraces personal, face-to-face recruiting.

In these situations the parish is really looking for someone to fulfill a ministerial calling in their Christian vocation of service to others, beyond “giving some time” or just “helping out”.

Begin by reflection. Give some thought to matching volunteer talents, interests and temperament with the task at hand. Resist impulsively “shooting from the hip”, as it were, to nominally fill a position or asking those same good souls who seem incapable of saying “no” to a priest’s request.

If the talents and interests of the parish membership already have been catalogued through a “Talent and Interest Survey”, then new and well-suited volunteers may become readily apparent who could be interviewed.

Rather than minimalize the service that needs to be done, describe the task rather as an important position that meaningfully contributes to fulfilling the mission of the parish. Frame the task as an opportunity to fulfill one’s Christian vocation of service to the Lord Jesus Christ by serving others – how the work will change lives and ultimately save lives.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that volunteers understand and more importantly, experience these critical and essential aspects of volunteer service in the church. Ideally, volunteering transcends duty and becomes a loving and grateful personal offering of oneself to God. Volunteers may need help in connecting the dots between the work that they are doing and the ultimate mission of the Church. Purposeful volunteering is the goal.

One caveat: take care not to morally “force” someone into the position through guilt coercion; they may not last long and serious spiritual damage may be inflicted.

Expand the list of potential volunteers by developing a recruiting team through a large circle of trusted parishioners, thus extending the influence of the recruiter by asking for their help in identifying a prospect for the task.

If the parish has already recruited and trained a Volunteer Coordinator, then consulting with this person concerning possible candidates is an obvious strategy.

Develop written responsibilities or a position description for the role. Often people decline to volunteer for fear of the unknown amount of time and energy commitment that will be required. A clear understanding of what is involved enhances the possibility that the recruited volunteer will not turnover quickly.

Help the prospective volunteer say “yes to the request” by defining the specific time frame of the task, with the option to re-negotiate in one or two years. Fulfilling and enjoying a short- term commitment might open the door to a longer commitment in the future, either in this position or another.

Assume that a “no” means “not now,” or “not this position.” Politely inquire why this is not a match for them and then listen carefully why they are not able to respond positively to the request. A “no” today may be a “yes” at a later time if obstacles to volunteer service are understood and removed or reduced.

Avoid casting a volunteer into the water to “sink or swim”. For many volunteer positions there are opportunities for training that include educational seminars, conferences, online classes, manuals, mentoring from experts, etc. If something is working in a nearby organization learn from it and adjust it to conform to Orthodox theology and parish life. Often one of the missing essential elements in a parish operating budget is a line item for the continuing education of the priest and training for volunteers.

Once the volunteer begins their work, stay in touch with an occasional phone call or meeting to listen and learn how things are progressing and whether or not additional help is required. Feeling supported in their work makes a great difference to volunteers.

The investment of attention, time and training in key volunteers pays a rich dividend in developing a dependable and effective ministry team that working together with the priest advances and fulfills the mission of the parish.


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